Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom - I ask John Henry Newman, why read?

Elif Batuman has developed a little specialty in attacking creative writing programs and contemporary fiction.  Some of her slashing is in The Possessed, especially the first chapter, but interested parties should track the wastes of the internet for her recent London Review of Books (TLS?) essay on the subject.  I didn’t read it myself – it’s 8,000 words on a subject I don’t care much about by a writer I don’t quite trust.

What should a budding young writer do, then?  If I understand her, the answer is to go to graduate school in comparative literature, allowing the writer, having accumulated the relevant quantity of experience, to write a hybrid memoir-novel about graduate school.  I don’t just mean that this is the answer for Batuman, but for everyone. I must misunderstand her advice.  If someone wants to brave those 8,000 words and report back, please, do.**

Please note that the pursuit of knowledge has become purely instrumental.  We acquire knowledge in pursuit of our novel.  Grad school seems like a dang costly way to get to that point, but different paths for different writers, right Elif?  Maybe even, for some, a creative writing program.

I, as narcissistic as Batuman, wonder why I pursue knowledge.  Meaning, useless knowledge.  Knowledge about literature.  My nickname, Amateur Reader, is meant seriously.  For the Professional Reader, literary study of some sort is the point of the exercise, professionally necessary.  And it’s easy enough to make practical arguments, for everyone, about the value of some reading.  I don’t know any reason for the amateur to read so much, though.  My reading goes far beyond any practical purpose.  Why, for example, did I recently read John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University (*)?

Newman’s book is a collection of speeches aimed at convincing suspicious Irish Catholics of the value of founding a Catholic University.  I have no plans to found a university, Catholic or otherwise.  I want to spend the rest of the week thinking about this book, but I find an easy clue to my purposeless purpose in the title of one of the speeches: “Knowledge Its Own End.”

Newman has to argue in two directions – first, fending off the Utilitarians who demand a measurable outcome to all study, measurable, typically, in currency, and second, reassuring the Catholics who want all pursuits to be in the clear service of religious truth or moral improvement.  I’m not sure that Newman succeeds, and don't see how he could.  If a liberal education creates “[a] habit of mind… which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom” (90), which sounds great, how are these things not also both useful in the practical world and morally improving?

Potentially, at least, which is key.  Newman recognizes that the history of attempts to educate men to virtue has been a history of failure, that “such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason” are poor tools for “contend[ing] against those giants, the passion and the pride of man” (107).  Newman concludes: “we perfect our nature, not by undoing it, but by adding to it what is more than nature, and directing it towards aims higher than its own” (109).

This is exactly right, or at least it is what I see in my own reading, my own writing, excepting a nervous rejection of the word “perfect.”  Still unanswered, by Newman, or me: what aims?

* The book went through many iterations.  The first version was published in 1852; the final version in 1873.  I’m using the 1947 Longmans, Green and Co. edition, ed. Charles Frederick Harrold.  Page numbers from this book.

** Please read the comments for the report. Thanks!


  1. Having just read all 8000 words on the subject, I can report back that her answer is not necessarily to go to graduate school, but simply to study the classics, real literature vs what she calls the fiction that is being written today. I think the title was imposed on the article, which is actually quite good. Basically, she says creative writing programs are great for developing style, but not for content. Which is a fair point I think.

  2. Content is the point, of course. Does a person need to aim at anything more than having lived more fully and deeply by experiencing things through reading that he or she will probably never experience in real life?

  3. Nice move, from Batuman to Newman. I can understand the suspicion of Batuman, but I don't think she's so bad or worth being cranky about, just about enjoying her efforts or not. Her main argument is one I like, that fulfilling the desire to be a writer by going to grad school and reading and discussing great books, rather than parking oneself in a spare and efficient mfa writing lab, isn't such a bad idea.

    It's not exactly knowledge for its own sake, as her goal was to be a writer (and not simply to get a novel, hybrid or otherwise, out of it) and gain the knowledge at the same time. Can't blame a girl for being somewhat practical. Part of it's hedging bets. Now she's qualified to be a teacher/professor, in case the writing thing didn't work out, and she could actually teach something besides writing, besides the spare technique that is the vicious cycle, she wants to say, in writing programs. So she ended up writing for The New Yorker, LRoB, and n+1. Not a bad result.
    Newman's ideal works, and it's a way to get to make study worthwhile for everybody, not just people who are trying to self-define as "writer." Again, a really nice comparison of perspectives here.

  4. To study real literature! That sounds great. That's my answer! My answer to everything. Thanks for the research, Carolyn.

    I should probably note that Batuman must make her argument with a great deal more sophistication in that article than in The Possessed, where's it's all a little glib, presumably because the argument is so personal ("I did X, which made me realize Y"). And who would want to read a memoir that was written otherwise?

    I wonder if "content," literary content, can actually be taught at all. I have doubts about style, too, at least at the level of the writers I usually read.

    Jeanne, I agree up to a point. You've stated the case for reading, and even for reading widely. Now, what's the case for reading narrowly? For reading not just for experiences but for knowledge - knowledge of literature. What purpose does this serve? It's knowledge for its own end.

    zhiv, no, it's not knowledge for its own end for Batuman. Not at all. Grad school professionalizes the pursuit of knowledge, whatever the intention of the student. Knowledge now has a purpose - a professional career in the field.

    Not a hint of blame, although I doubt Batuman's specific path will work for many people - I mean, especially, work so quickly! The fact that she was able to bend a literature PhD to her will like this is unusual. Maybe unique.

  5. Of course this method of creating writers via grad. school programs also seems a social control devise-I am in the last sections of Ford Madox Ford's The March of Literture (and yes I know a lot of the book is real eccentric)-he says in his preface that academics teaching literature to students have largely killed off the love of reading (this was in 1938)-

  6. Thanks, mel - a reminder that no complaint is original.

    MFAs have not killed the love of reading. Nor has literary theory, nor other academic pursuits. The love of reading is alive and well.

  7. Book blogs for sure show us the love of reading is very alive-FMF for sure loved it-I wonder what his students thought of him in Michigan in the late 1930s!-in his pics then he does not look healthy-

  8. Along these lines I should mention David Ulin's new book, The Lost Art of Reading. Don't know much about it, but I've seen Ulin a couple of times now and he's a good reader/critic, it seems, but he was also the interviewer when I went to see Batuman, oddly enough.

  9. Thanks, zhiv. I agree, Ulin is a good critic. I've been avoiding "the internet is killing reading" books, though. My standards of evidence for this sort of thing are pretty high.

    mel - good question. I'll bet FMF's classes were chaotic messes. And I'll also bet there were some brilliant stretches of talk that would have been marvels to hear.

  10. I was wondering if any one has any thoughts on the Max Saunder's biography of Ford Madox Ford-I am contemplating buying them but they are rather expensive (no libraries in Manila) so I was just hoping someone might have read this work-

  11. I read the Batuman article and, in short, feel her point is unnecessary. Even people with MFAs know there is more to life than the writer's workshop...any good MFA program is doing as much lit discussion and classics reading as it is craft discussion. (Full disclosure, I have an MFA and I learned more about how to read, than how to write..and I have plenty of criticism for the MFA "factory" but not the way Batuman does it in her article) But I won't get cranky about her article, it's just a bit easy to attack MFA programs at the moment.

    What I really wanted to say here is that I just finished Dickens' Hard Times last night and that was a timely coincidence for reading your post today. Talk about skewering a faulty educational system. Dickens is so hip.

  12. verbivore - yes, I wondered about that. The MFA programs Batuman describes may well exist, but I did not believe that there were not plenty of good programs that took literary study seriously.

    The author of the book she nominally reviews goes after Batuman on the same issue in a letter that can be found, um, somewhere on the internet.

    That beginning of Hard Times is excellent, my favorite part, except for the villains - the self-made man and his dependent. You're right, Newman's arguments against Utilitarian education are there in Dickens, although the rhetorical strategy is rather different.

    No luck on the FMF biography, mel. Looks like a beast, too much detail for me.

  13. yes as of now I am passing on the FMF biography-keep on the look out for the forthcoming BBC presentation of Parade's End